The Things We Can’t Unsay


Love, forever.

Do you think people with tattoos ever regret them? A lover’s name, inked in love, who becomes an ex-lover? A misspelled manifesto, like NO RAGRETS or ONLY GOD WILL JUGE ME. I saw a guy today with STRENGHT on his biceps and I wondered if he knew, or if he just didn’t care that he was proclaiming something important about himself that didn’t even exist. How do you even pronounce it? Maybe it’s the quality alternately known as being strong.

There are ways now of having regrettable tattoos removed. But what about the other things we ink unto each other, pledge into the air? The proclamations and manifestos and promises? What do we do when those have expired and we don’t mean them anymore? Or worse, when we still mean them, but the people to whom we’ve uttered them no longer want them? What about those?

An aside: When I was a freshly divorced 25-year-old, I moved from Punto Fijo, Venezuela to Katy, TX where my sister was living, and became a fire fighter. It was something I’d always wanted to do, along with flying airplanes and speaking French, and so with great enthusiasm I became a member of Crew B at the West I-10 Fire Dept. Whenever my beeper went off, I slapped my magnetic beacon to the top of my car and raced down to the station, pulled on my bunker gear and climbed into the truck as fast as I could. 2 AM, 4 AM calls, I never cared, I loved it.

Before I moved my few possessions back across the Gulf of Mexico post-divorce, I cleaned house. I wanted nothing from that life except for the things that came before it. A clean slate, a fresh start, all that. But somehow, I ended up with a box full of love letters—not only from my ex-husband, but from all the ex-boyfriends who’d ever dared pledge their love on paper. There was the very first, John Williams, who shattered my heart and taught me to forever be suspicious of love. There was the one who was particularly prolific and poetic, C. Sam Adams, with whom I spent my 21st birthday and who later became a ski instructor in Sandy, UT. A couple of others. I wanted nothing to do with any of them. I swore off love, that silly, fragile devotion, and to prove it, I shoved the contents of that box into the fireplace and burned it.

It was very, very satisfying.

After a goodly time, the flames died to embers, and then to cold ash. I might as well have smudged the place, I felt so free. I shoveled the cremated memories into two paper sacks and carted them down to the dumpster behind my building. Tossed them inside with nary a how’s-your-father and went to bed.

A couple hours later, my beeper went off. I raced down, was the first to clip my tag to the pumper and slide in next to the chauffeur. It was 1 AM and I was half-asleep, so it took me until we rounded the entry to my apartment complex to realize that it was my own dumpster shooting flames into the night sky. Fire licking at the crumbs of memory I’d tried to destroy. I guess the ash wasn’t as cold as I’d thought; I was about to fight a fire that I’d started.

“I’ll take this one,” I said to the chief, relieving him of the red line hose. Maybe he thought I was just an eager rookie. Maybe he thought I wanted to prove my worth. I just wanted to put the fire out as fast as I could, so the rest of Crew B could go back to bed.

Those of us who transact in words are at greater risk of being haunted by our pasts. We tend to overshare in writing. But anyone who has ever said something aloud may also someday wish to redact it—and how do they? What is said can never be unsaid. What is written is almost always committed to permanence. It was true before the internet, and especially true now. It’s easier to remove a tattoo than to retract a pledge of love when the love no longer exists.

But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we shouldn’t try to erase our mistakes, burn our histories, forget our pasts. Do those moments of truth, impermanent as they may have been, need to be negated? Or should they be embraced as part of a manifest history? Maybe it’s better to live, even embarrassed, even regretfully, with NO RAGRETS.